Carroll, Paul Vincent 1900–1968
An Irish dramatist and short story writer, Carroll once said of himself, "I write as Ibsen did. I take the life of a small village and enlarge it to encompass all human life." He developed what he termed "that unquenchable love of the drama" at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, where his first plays were produced. While teaching in Glasgow, Carroll discovered the writings of Jonathan Swift. Although profoundly influenced by Swift, Carroll never became as bitter in his satire or as bleak in his philosophy as his master. He also wrote movie scenarios and television scripts, and was a founding director of the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
It was Paul Vincent Carroll who gave to the stage several portrayals of the Catholic priest in plays which not only dramatize the position of the priest in Catholic Ireland's national life, but also question the relation of religion to the daily life of the people. Carroll, up to the present time, at least, has neither peer nor imitator in this kind of Irish play. The figure of the Catholic priest has appeared frequently in modern Irish prose fiction, but only occasionally and incidentally in plays. (p. 87)
Irish-born Paul Vincent Carroll … wrote several plays, as distinctive as those of any of his great predecessors in the Abbey Theater, in which he frequently dramatized the conflict between the liberal and the illiberal wings of Catholicism in Ireland, often showing a sensitive concern for the plight of the rebel against oppressive convention imposed from within or from without. In two of his best-known plays, Shadow and Substance and The White Steed, he sets a type of obtuse Irish priest in opposition to a type of intransigent liberal, and at the stupidities of everyone involved, whether cleric or layman, he hits very hard indeed.
In a youthful tragedy entitled Things That Are Caesar's, presented at the Abbey Theater in August, 1932, Carroll broods over the spiritual decay in the family life of an Irish Catholic home. The play is unrelieved by even a little hope; nor does any character in it reveal the brighter side of the Irish nature, such as one finds in his more mature plays. Apparently Carroll later moved toward a more profound insight and a broader, deeper sympathy, for in The Strings, My Lord, Are False, produced just ten years later, the priest becomes a symbol of Christian heroism and many characters exemplify some of the finest traits in the Irish disposition.
One of Carroll's most significant plays is Shadow and Substance…. It is a deeply felt play about life, religion and education in one of the hill towns of County Louth, where Carroll was born. (pp. 88-9)
The penetrating analysis of Irish Catholic life in Shadow and Substance is more complex than that in any other Carroll play. The structure of the plot rests on two main personalities, each utterly unlike the other, yet closer in love and understanding and spiritual affinity than are any other characters to either of these or to each other….
In Carroll's next play, The White Steed,… he again brings into focus the ugly differences between the shadow and the substance of true Catholicism by bringing together some remarkable character contrasts in both clerical and lay life. The play attacks pride, cruelty, stupidity, and the type of mind that identifies the Church with certain modern corruptions in art and piety.
Confined to his wheel chair, Canon Matt Lavelle, wise,...
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Unquestionably, Carroll suffered because he lacked the charisma of O'Casey or Behan, yet in any sensible estimate of modern Irish drama, Carroll must be rated the most important dramatic talent in the Irish theatre since the early writings of O'Casey. (p. 15)
[The title, Things That Are Caesar's,] epitomizes the basic thematic motifs found in most of Carroll's early writing: the conflict between God and Mammon, Church and State, and Flesh and Spirit. Carroll became intrigued by observing these particular forces at work in each individual and determined to ponder the divisions, torments, and tragedies that resulted from such opposing elements in the nature of man. (p. 20)
[Shadow and Substance is] presented in the Ibsen formula of a tightly constructed play with intensely probing character revelation. But Carroll's ability with dialogue is his own gift. The conversation is quick-paced, concise, sharp, and frequently ironic, satiric, and humorous. Several of the dialogue exchanges are as keen and as lively as any conversations conceived by a modern dramatists…. The drama critics, who enthusiastically applauded the play, used such comments as "passionate eloquence," "probing power," "spiritual beauty," and "tender and sensitive," but the play is also masterly for its adept use of satire and irony. It possesses an astringency that both bites and purifies.
Like O'Casey in his anti-clericism and like Synge in his attack on Irish characteristics, Carroll tried to capture all that he found distasteful in Ireland and to present these aspects on the stage. (p. 36)
While the play has aspects that are rather peculiarly Irish, it is not simply an Irish play…. It establishes that pride, violence, intolerance, and similar abominations are false and vicious shadows compared with the essential substance of fundamental faith and humanity. (p. 37)
Carroll [in his conception of heroism is similar] to Yeats, Joyce, AE, and numerous other modern Irish writers who were obsessed with the desire for heroism in an unheroic world. Kindred demonstrates that Carroll was well-acquainted with a concept stressed in several of Yeats's plays; viz., that the gods must have human assistance before they can achieve their purposes. Furthermore, Kindred's search for a new leader reflects the general Messianic ideal among Irish writers who were preoccupied with the heroic personality and with heroic ideals for Ireland…. In his portrayal of heroism and heroic qualities—in various forms—Carroll returns again and again to this theme in several of his plays, Kindred being his most philosophically grandiose statement of such conceptions.
Unfortunately, both for Carroll's high thinking and for his career, Kindred fails as a play—for several reasons. It is too often melodramatic, artificial, and stagey—at times almost wooden. (p. 47)
The majority of Carroll's stories can be classified as tales of humor, character sketches, and ghostly sagas—all of which usually inculcate some moral point,...
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The great strength of Shadow and Substance lay primarily in the juxtaposition of two beautifully drawn and brilliantly contrasted characters…. Based vaguely on Carroll's interpretation of the character of Jonathan Swift, [the character Cannon Skerritt] actually reflects those facets of Swift with which Carroll himself most identified—the intellectual pride, the arrogance, the austerity, the savage contempt for folly. But if Canon Skerritt represents a stern and cold facet of Paul Vincent Carroll himself, these qualities were superbly balanced in the play by the Canon's young serving-girl Brigid. In Brigid's mysticism, simplicity, warm humanity and spiritual humility, another and probably more significant side of Carroll's own character was evident. These opposed contrarities combined to create one of the most solidly built, bitingly caustic and deeply moving plays to emerge from the remarkable dramatic movement of modern Ireland.
There are, I think, two reasons for Carroll's inability to create other plays as thoroughly memorable as Shadow and Substance. Although The White Steed was nearly as fine, and although his jeu d'esprit The Devil Came from Dublin really only needs a final polishing and tightening, in most of his other plays he was unable to achieve quite the same excellent balance of his own clashing character traits. In most of his other work, he seemed either totally Swiftian or totally Brigid-like. When he swung toward the Swiftian pole, as in Things That Are Caesar's, or The Wise Have Not Spoken, or Farewell to Greatness!, he was not always able to keep his savagery, his ferocity, his satire and his contempt for folly within reasonable bounds. To an appreciable extent, each of these plays is strident, harsh and a bit unbelievable. In The Wise Have Not Spoken, for instance, he describes the modern world as "a tower of Babel where fools, puritans, and scoundrels shout each other down…. a warping, killing, crookening rat-trap where the human mind and spirit are driven mad." In Farewell to Greatness!, his saeva indignatio takes a sexual bent, and Swift's detestation of Vanessa becomes so ferocious that it is simply inhuman and psychopathic.
When, however, Carroll veered, as he most often did, around to the Brigid point of view, he usually became too simple and too saccharine. In plays like The Wayward Saint, The Old...
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During the ten year period preceding his dramatic debut [in 1930], Carroll wrote more than thirty stories. Apart from their somewhat nebulous literary value, these stories present valuable documentation of the writer's creative process, and of his early and deep concern for the indomitable spirit of the Irish. In the stories, as in the plays, there is no real thematic consistency, but the germ of his later method of handling theme, language and characterization is clearly visible. In "The Treasure of Gold" and "The Stranger's Kingdom" we find an ethereal mystical motif so evident in Shadow and Substance and The Old Foolishness. His portrayal of types such as the Irish rogue, the shrew, or the gossip in...
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It is often remarked that there exists among Irish dramatists a natural impulse toward social satire. Playwrights such as Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde, and Shaw often outraged the English theatre with their satiric wit. During the Dramatic Revival in Ireland the satiric impulse found convincing expression in Synge, the early O'Casey, and Lennox Robinson. Hence it comes as nothing of a surprise that Paul Vincent Carroll, a man who deeply admired Swift, should have found a natural Celtic impulse irresistible.
Although there is bitter religious and social satire in Carroll's earliest published plays, Things That Are Caesar's (1934), Shadow and Substance (1937), and The White Steed...
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